MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Posts Tagged ‘Koans

Stepping in the Dark: How to Practice with Koans

leave a comment »

Walking in the Dark

Photo: ProStockMedia

Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, I’ve found the stone.

–Zen Koan

When you’re walking in the dark, it’s good to have a friend to keep you company. And sometimes your friend will say something you hadn’t thought of, and that’s helpful. And sometimes they will say something that you don’t quite understand, but it makes you curious, and aware that there’s something going on you hadn’t noticed. Keeping company like this, while walking in the dark, changes how you experience your life in a way that stays with you.

From a few moments after language blinked into existence, humans have tried to hold onto the words that accompany such mysterious moments of insight. We have etched them on bones, written them on papyrus scrolls, attached them to the refrigerator with a magnet. A bit more than a millennium ago people in China started to call these sayings koans. Koans are records of conversations, bits of verse, and stories. Soon there were great collections of koans and people discovered they were a transformative meditation practice. It appears that koans came out of a very old tradition of improvised spoken word poetry, art that crystallized out of a particular moment. Koans came to be a way of communicating understandings about the nature of reality and of having experiences of awakening.

As a teenager I’d write down poems or the words of a song and keep them with me where I could look at them. When I’d repeat the words to myself, I’d see something I hadn’t seen before, understand how to get through this dark patch or how to grow up. I still find those bits of paper in boxes and old wallets. I also discovered meditation around that time and it helped too. I could sit still and let the world have its way with me, put my doomed thoughts on hold and allow what was mysterious to reveal itself to me in the light through the window.

It was 20 years later when I first heard about koans. Initially I imagined them as an obscure spiritual puzzle for argumentative monks, which wasn’t very appealing. But then I met an actual koan. I had no expectations at first, but it was good company. I liked it. I wondered about it and turned it over and over in my meditation. I let myself be inside the world of the koan. Slowly, unexpectedly, it started to soften me up and I become fond of my actual life, even the difficult bits, the grumpy children, the impossible problems. The French poet Paul Eluard explained it: “Il y a un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci” (there is another world but it’s inside this one). Later on, my intense curiosity about the koans gave my practice a new kind of energy. And as I went along, I found there was something in me that understood what they were talking about. Ever since I’ve always had a koan with me, meditating, walking around, in my sleep.

A koan: Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.

A koan is made of evocative words and images. It’s not generalized spiritual advice, or even a good idea, it’s a response to a specific moment, and that moment is happening now. Each koan is different and takes me on its own journey. In the case of the koan above, you can enter through the stone, the dark, the water. And when you do this it’s possible to see how this moment is like so many others. “I’m in the dark again, looking for a stone. I’m walking through it, taking one step after another.” and I could also see that difficult situations are part of the condition of being a person. We find ourselves in the dark because it’s in our nature to be this way. And it’s also in our nature to find our way. It’s clear that the eternal and the ephemeral are connected, your individual life is part of something vast and shared.

Koans will show you something, and it will never be about how you or the world is wrong. Your criticisms and judgments, your ideas about how deeply flawed you or the rest of humanity are, your plans for escape or revenge or redemption, none of that matters at all to the koan. It will show you the vast web of everything, the net of jewels that you are a part of. Koans will teach you how to practice and they will be a gate into the never-boring world of everything you don’t already know.

Here’s how to do it: Step by step, in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.

1. Take a step:

Find a koan for yourself. You can use this one, about stepping in the dark, or if it holds no appeal, find another. I’ve included a short list below. Or perhaps you’ve already found a koan, or one is eyeing you from across the room. You can meditate with the koan, or take it for a walk. You can repeat the words to yourself, or not. Even one word is enough. What you remember consciously may not be up to you. Trusting the way you naturally work with the koan is the beginning of making a relationship with it.

2. Be in the dark:

We like to know things. It makes us feel safer, not vulnerable to criticism from ourselves or others. Koans don’t work like that. They reward the vulnerability of not knowing. The effort of working with the koan is in letting go of the ways you usually use your mind, the plans, the judgments, the image management. If you like, you can even let go of the koan. Once you’ve heard it you can’t lose it, it will stay with you, anchored below your attention. You don’t need to explain it to yourself or figure it out. What is required is to allow yourself to go to the edge of what you know and look beyond. This curiously delicious darkness stretches out in all directions. Transformation comes from this place.

3. Get wet:

Take the koan into your life. This means take it to the store, take it on a long commute, to work, take it to the woods, the circus, and holidays with your parents or your children. Repeat it. Allow it into your heart when you’re late for an appointment or in the midst of a hard conversation, when you’re sad or bored or disappointed in fame or fortune. Just recall the koan to mind and notice what happens. Really look. What you saw before won’t be what you see now. You may see the light in people’s faces that you had missed before. Something annoying may turn out to be funny instead.

4. Find a stone:

This koan, “Step by step in the dark…” points to the way that you have the capacity to find a moment of ease, a dry place to put your foot. Notice when that ease comes, maybe that’s the stone. The koan also provides you with places to step in the form of potent words and images. Let yourself rest in these. Use the word or image as a focus, lean into it. Explore what it’s like. Feel it in your body. Actually walk in the dark and notice how it is for you. Find out what kind of stone is your stone, and how it is for you to step there. Notice when you’re at peace.

5. Start again:

When you lose your practice, when suffering appears again, impenetrable and literal, you can always start again. Find your koan. Shake it a bit and ask, what now? This is a practice that will be there when you need it.

You can do this anytime, in any condition. You can do this in meditation, sitting quietly, in a pool of sunlight. And better still, take it where you don’t think it can go. It’s there whenever you need insight or a new way of seeing your situation or a hand to hold in the dark. There won’t be an answer, not directly, but you will start to see something new, or more clearly. The world (the argument, the traffic) will be visible in a different way, perhaps brighter, or perhaps it will bring tears to your eyes, or make you laugh out loud.

Postscript:

There is a Zen practice of working on koans individually with a teacher as a curriculum, which is based on a traditional Japanese method. The technique I give here is also useful in that context. There are many ways to practice with koans, and you will discover your own. Fortunately koans are robust, durable, and impossible to break.

A very small selection of koans to choose from:
1. There is a true person of no rank, always coming and going through the portals of your face.

2. There is nothing I dislike.

3. The heart-mind turns in accord with the ten thousand things. The pivot on which it turns is very deep.

4. Put out the fire across the river.

5. What is your original face before your parents were born?

6. Heart clouded, heart unclouded, standing or falling, it’s still the same body.

7. Who am I?

8. Question: Why did the first ancestor come from the west? Answer: The oak tree in the garden.

9. There is a solitary brightness without fixed shape or form. It knows how to listen, to understand, and to teach the dharma. This solitary brightness is you.

–Rachel Boughton

Source: Lion’s Roar Magazine

Written by MattAndJojang

October 29, 2019 at 9:13 am

“Welcome!”

leave a comment »

Zhaozhou's Bridge

Zhaozhou’s Bridge in Hebei Province, China. Named after the Zen Master Zhaozhou Congsen (Jap.: Jōshū Jūshin), it is the oldest bridge in China. (Photo: mafengho.cn)

When times of great difficulty visit us, how shall we meet them? Zhaozhou said “Welcome!”

— Zen Koan

Written by MattAndJojang

October 27, 2019 at 10:47 am

The Woman at the Inn

leave a comment »

Painting by Katsushika Hokusai

The radiance serenely illuminates the whole vast universe…

–Zen Master Zhangzhou Xiucai

A woman ran the inn at a station on the pilgrimage route at Hara, a village under Mount Fuji. No one remembers her name, but she had a great awakening in her own kitchen. Her eyes looked directly at you, and she made up her own mind about things. Both men and women felt at ease in her company. Her turn of thought was practical and she liked to cook, clean, sew, and do. Every year she salted plums. She made vinegar out of persimmons from her old trees. She cut up radishes and cucumbers and put them in pickle jars, adding vinegar, spices, and seaweed that she gathered. She enjoyed the smell of rice cooking and the vigor of steam. In autumn there were pears; in late autumn, chestnuts.

Light seeped through the paper windows, the old brown wood wrapped around her like the fabric of a well-worn kimono, and she was happy. This was the point of being human, she thought—to have her hands inside the world, moving its colors and shapes. Her children grew and her life unfolded, placid, then shocking, then placid again. A son died of tuberculosis, a daughter sang beautifully. When travelers tied on their sandals in the mornings, they departed into the stories they had come from, and sometimes she longed to step into a story herself. Her thoughts went out to Edo, as Tokyo was then called, and even to Holland, home of the foreigners who were allowed only onto an island in the harbor of Nagasaki to trade.

One year there was a cold spell and the life she had known began passing from her like autumn leaves. She didn’t know why—perhaps her older children growing up and leaving home left a void, perhaps there was no reason. In any case, the plum blossoms stepped back behind an invisible barrier so that they didn’t pierce her heart that year. Slights enraged her; she woke fuming in the small hours. When a guest asked for a small service she told her, “Get it yourself.” Her husband worried about soldiers breaking down the doors, and about a killing at another station up the road, but she was inclined to laugh. Sometimes she felt so much that she could hardly breathe. Her husband thought it might be grief over the loss of their son. But it wasn’t grief. If she had known a spell to undo her pains, she wouldn’t have said it.

What she felt was not an accident. She had always known that sooner or later she would have to face such a moment. She knew about the poet Basho, a wanderer who walked the Tokaido Road fifty years before. When she opened one of his books, the first thing she read was a poignant account. Basho had come upon a two-year-old running along the highway in distress, crying and hungry. The child’s family couldn’t feed another mouth and had turned him loose until his life should vanish like the dew. Basho wrote, “I threw him some food from my sleeve as I passed,” and he wrote this poem too—as a gravestone:

You’ve heard a monkey shriek—
for this abandoned child,
what is the autumn wind like?

The poem released something in the innkeeper. She hugged her breast and felt the cry in her own body. She thought that although she didn’t want to go down the road her guests took, a journey was definitely called for. As she went about her work she listened for a voice, a direction.

The inn had one treasure, a piece of calligraphy with the character for long life, given to someone by the local Zen teacher, an eccentric named Hakuin. The writing was beautiful though amazingly rough, and she felt alive when she looked at it. “The person who understands that roughness,” she thought, “might know what is happening to me.” When she went to hear the old man the hall was packed, and he made her laugh. It turned out that he was famous, though not, apparently, pious. She began meditating a bit, sitting and breathing, or concentrating on washing the endless dishes that made up an innkeeper’s life. This meditation didn’t seem to be a new direction but perhaps it was a condition for a new direction. She found a little more space between her thoughts, the trees began to step near again, and she calmed down for a while. But she knew that it was a temporary lull and that her journey, not yet begun, waited inside her.

Hakuin’s talks were a mixed bag. They confused her, she went to sleep, she grew sullen and argumentative. Her skin itched. Hakuin gave advice to great ladies and local lords, to samurai, fishermen, and rice planters. But it didn’t sound like advice. He said things like, “Straightaway, the rhinoceros of doubt fell down dead, and I could hardly bear my joy.” He had a lot of experiences like that. Sometimes he talked as roughly as a soldier and ranted about something that annoyed him—a rival teacher, say. He had a high-flying mode too, and one thing he said went straight to her heart. “They say there’s a pure land where everything is only mind, and that there’s a Buddha of light in your own body. Once that Buddha of light appears, mountains, rivers, earth, grass, trees, and forests suddenly glow with a great light. To see this, you have to look inside your own heart. Then what should you be looking out for? When you are looking for something that is only mind, what kind of special features would it have? When you are looking for the Buddha of infinite light in your own body, how would you recognize it?”

The Buddha of light wasn’t interesting to Hakuin’s funding sources, but he was someone the poor country people prayed to for a good rice harvest, for freedom from bandits, for children and grandchildren, and for lower taxes. For the innkeeper, the words were spoken just to her. She said to herself, “This isn’t so hard.” She had finally discovered a wish that had been secret even from herself. She wasn’t confused any longer, and she didn’t try to think through what Hakuin meant; she just wanted to spend time with the koan.

She told her family, “I feel that happiness is as near as my skin,” and she brought Hakuin’s words to mind when she was awake and even during sleep. “Inside your own heart. Trees shine with a great light.” The words accompanied her everywhere. Her husband asked if she had become a fanatic, but she wasn’t in the mood for jokes. “This isn’t about you,” she muttered, and he knew that she was right. After that, he tried not to get in the way and to help unobtrusively. He hoped that she would find what she was looking for.

Meanwhile, if the trees emanated a light she certainly couldn’t see it. But gradually she began to feel a connection with the things around her—a wooden rice bucket quivered with life, the doorway made a perfect doorway. At birth she had been given a doll, made just for her and, as a child, she believed that her doll danced at night. She could never catch it dancing, but in the morning it was more alive. The rice bucket was like that; whenever she looked, it had just stopped dancing. This connection wasn’t really a light, but wasn’t not a light either.

One day as she was washing a pot, she had a breakthrough. Breaking through into what, into where? She had washed thousands of pots, but her life was in this one. She was just scrubbing, actually, when she completely forgot herself, forgot her chapped hands and her wet clothes and what kind of thoughts she was having. There are dreams so deep that on waking the dreamer can’t at first remember her name or where she is. Or even what she is. It was like that for her: the walls, the bowls, and her own hands were utterly strange and new. The moment had no end, and she didn’t know which of her worlds was the dream.

She saw daylight coming out of the bottom of the pot and reasoned carefully to herself that this couldn’t be true. The sunlight wasn’t just in the pot; when she looked around, everything was bright: the paper screens, the tatami mat floor, the sound of a harness jingling outside, the smell of daylight. That was the particular feature of her change of heart—she saw things glowing with light. It was as if they had a song of their own, and that song was light. She began to laugh and couldn’t hold it back. Her youngest child came in to stare at her enthusiastically, wondering if she had gone mad. But the woman’s laughter set her moving out of the kitchen at a run. She tossed the pot aside and rushed to see Hakuin. She couldn’t wait to tell someone who understood. By the time she got to his place she had settled into a jog. Hakuin happened to be sitting on the steps outside his room, looking at nothing in particular. As soon as she saw him, she began waving her arms. As if words would bridge the gap that was still to be covered, she shouted, “Hey!” and started babbling.

“I’ve met Buddha in my own body—everything is shining with a great light! It’s fabulous!” It occurred to her then, as she ran, that she could test each thing she saw against her happiness. She could test digging the ground on a cold morning and the happiness was there. She could test her sorrow over her lost child, and when she did, she felt the warmth of her love for him, and then his life seemed complete. Brightness fell about her. She tested an angry soldier. Fine. She tested a dark, bent cypress. Each thing she saw had become perfect, and without flaw. She looked at Hakuin’s face, and saw the creases of age along with the amusement that often seemed close to the surface with him. The light was in him too. She danced with joy.

Hakuin had the general attitude, “If you’ve seen one enlightenment, you’ve seen them all,” but he liked what was irrepressible, including this woman. He stopped looking at nothing in particular. She felt him open to her and meet her delight with his. He came straight at her, “Is that so? But what about a pit of shit—does it also shine with a great light?”

She jumped up and down like a child. A test! A test! It was the test she had just given herself. “Of course, of course,” she thought, “even shit gives off light, there is nothing that doesn’t And he pretends that he doesn’t see.” She enjoyed Hakuin’s mind so much that she went up to him and slapped him and said, “You still don’t get it, you old fart.” Her thoughts were not really thoughts; they just appeared without her intending them. They formed themselves a little like this: “I see you, I see you. So, does my slap give off light?”

Hakuin roared with laughter.

***

Do you notice whether you can see the light in the most ordinary of places. Can you find the light in your own kitchen? Can you find it in your own body? Where is the light in your own face? At what point in your life are you certain that there is no light? Is it painful to hold that belief?

Hakuin’s question about the pile of shit is just a version of, “Can you bear to be this happy?” And, “Can you find this beauty in all circumstances? Or, is there instead some part of your life that you think of as a pit of shit, a place where you never expect to meet happiness?”

— John Tarrant

Written by MattAndJojang

August 8, 2017 at 9:22 pm